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Ben Smith

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Hoosiers grow from 3 years as underdogs

– No way they pull this off, these Indiana Hoosiers coming at you with their neon earnestness and practice duds the color of arterial blood. What they know about James Madison you could fit inside a miser’s purse, and that is that.

“They’re a really good team. They won their conference,” offers Victor Oladipo, who will reveal later that’s more than he almost knows about James Madison, the guy.

And James Madison star Andre Nation? What about him?

“I don’t know too much,” Oladipo replies. “I mean, he’ll probably do whatever it takes to help his team win.”

And if that tells you the game is up – come out, Hoosiers, you stand exposed as just another 1 seed that can’t put a face to a 16 seed – it’s also no cause for hope among the James Madison faithful, much as it might seem so. Because if Indiana doesn’t know much of anything about James Madison, the Hoosiers at least know where they’re coming from.

A 16 seed in a tournament in which a 16 has never won, except for play-in games?

Why, that’s nothing, in terms of underdoggery, compared with what Indiana has seen.

Back of the No. 1 seed and the Big Ten championship and the 25 conference victories the last two seasons, see, are a pile of nights when they walked onto the floor waving a plastic sword at a dragon. You go 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20 across three seasons, you learn to recognize the full weight and dimension of stacked odds. And you learn, slowly, how to turn those odds in your favor.

You do with heart and sweat and want-to and plain stubbornness, and by understanding that nothing, least of all W’s, can be taken on faith.

“I don’t think it’s about the seed,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said Thursday. “I think it’s about how good James Madison is. I don’t know what coach said it, (but) seeds don’t matter. And he’s probably right, because there’s so much parity in the game.

“I think one thing that you would look back at our season, and there has never been a time that this team has not brought a ton of effort and energy. … I think that’s a great sign of maturity. That’s not taking an opponent lightly. It’s never coming in feeling like you’re entitled and enabled and you just get to show up and play.”

Hard to see how that could happen, given the road this team has traveled. Crean brings it up a lot, but how could he not? Everything this team has done the last two years has flowed from what happened the previous three.

Now comes James Madison, playing the role for which heaven made all 16 seeds. And here comes Indiana, which knows exactly how James Madison will come at that role, because the Hoosiers have come at it so many times themselves.

“Victor, a 16 has never beaten a 1. Does that put any pressure on you guys?” someone asked Oladipo on Thursday, not long before he answered a question about James Madison by saying, um, well, he, you know, signed “something big.”

This he was a bit clearer about.

“We’re just going to go out there and play basketball, and play the way we need to play, play the way we played that got us to this point,” Oladipo answered.

“We’ve taken it one game at a time all year, and we have to do that because of the conference we play in,” Jordan Hulls added. “Like Victor was saying, you can’t take anybody lightly. There’s no easy games.”

Ooh. Bad news, James Madison.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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